An estimated 12 million French people go to their boulangerie (bakery) every day. But what do they buy there? Baguettes (in many different varieties) are still the top-seller – the French really do love and eat them as much as stereotypes suggest. But among other boulangerie staples are viennoiseries, pastries like palmiers, pains au lait, and the iconic croissants and pains au chocolat. Let’s take a mouthwatering look at viennoiseries, which hold a special place in everyday life in France and mine.
What’s a viennoiserie?
You might notice the word “Vienne,” the French name for the city “Vienna,” in the word viennoiserie. That’s because these pastries were thought to have originated in Austria. Although they were popular there, historical records show foods resembling croissants and other viennoiseries much earlier than that, in other European countries, as well as in the Middle East.
Many people say that Marie Antoinette, who was from Austria, is the person who popularized viennoiseries in France. That honor actually goes to a fellow Austrian with the cool name of August Zang, who opened his Café Viennoise on the rue de Richelieu in Paris in the late 1830’s, long after Marie-Antoinette had met her fate at the guillotine. Viennoiseries have evolved over the years and are now staples of any true French boulangerie’s offerings.
What’s the difference between a viennoiserie and a pastry?
In most French boulangeries, you’ll probably notice that pastries (pâtisseries) and viennoiseries are kept in separate display sections. If you asked me to tell you what a viennoiserie is, I’d point to that area of the display case and say, “It’s any of those brownish-yellow pastries over there.” Of course, there’s more to it than that. Basically, it’s all about the ingredients. A viennoiserie is either made with puff pastry or a specific type of dough and yeast, or (as with brioche) is a richer version of a basic recipe. That’s why many of the best-known viennoiseries have a flaky, crunchy exterior, and an interior of soft, light, thin layers, while others are like soft, doughy bread. The croissant is probably the best-known viennoiserie internationally, but there are many others, including regional variants.
When do the French eat viennoiseries?
Viennoiseries are often eaten at breakfast in France. But I’m going to shatter a myth: not all French people have the time in the morning to go to the boulangerie in search of something fresh. Instead, they tend to rely on factory-made, prepackaged viennoiseries (viennoiseries industrielles). Some of these can be tasty, but they’re rarely, if ever, crunchy like the ones you’d get from an actual boulangerie. In addition to breakfast fare, viennoiseries are also popular snacks for French children. You can also enjoy a viennoiserie with your afternoon coffee if you so wish, like I do sometimes. Some people might buy viennoiseries in the evening to have them for breakfast the next morning. Most of them keep very well, especially if you leave them in the paper they usually come in. To make them last even longer, consider storing them in a plastic bag to conserve moisture.
A list of typical French viennoiseries
You can be sure that some viennoiseries will be sold in just about any bakery in France. Even if there’s only a small selection, you’ll most likely at least be able to buy a croissant or a pain au chocolat. And then, of course, each boulangerie can choose what it sells, so in addition to a choice of the essentials, there might be a specific treat that’s a house or regional specialty.
Here’s a list of the viennoiseries you’re most likely to find in a typical French boulangerie, along with a description of each one:
Similar to bread, but richer and usually sweet, brioche comes in many forms, from a roll, to a muffin-like shape, to a knotted loaf (looking a lot like its cousin, challah) of varying sizes. Brioches often have grains of sugar on top. Mass-produced brioches are sold in a variety of formats, including briochettes (little round rolls), and a sliced loaf. Many French people add jam, Nutella, or other spreads to these slices.
Le chausson aux pommes
Literally translating to “apple slipper”, this is an apple turnover: cooked apples, usually in a bit of syrupy melted sugar, inside a flaky pastry crust.
A little ball of choux pastry with large grains of sugar on top. Chouquettes look like donut holes but are in fact very light – almost hollow inside. They’re typically bought in multiples, rather than just a single one, although you can do that, too.
Fun fact: Chouquettes are especially popular with young children, and some boulanger(e)s will even give them one for free from time to time. Boulangeries are a part of life in cities and villages alike, and boulanger(e)s often become fond of the kids who come in. And, as this report confirms, most boulanger(e)s also prefer to be rid of their chouquettes within two hours of making them – after that, they get dry and hard.
A crescent-shaped pastry with a crusty, flaky outside, and a soft, thin, airy inside. There are several varieties of a croissant, including:
- Le croissant au beurre as its name suggests, this croissant, considered the classic one, is made with butter. As opposed to…
- le croissant ordinaire – This variety is made with margarine or a similar butter substitute. It’s generally considered gastronomically inferior to the croissant au beurre, which is why it typically costs a little less. In terms of taste, it’s less rich than a croissant au beurre.
- Le croissant aux amandes — These croissants covered with shaved almonds and, often, powdered sugar, aren’t as common as the others on this list, but you can find them in a number of Parisian boulangeries, at least. If you like almonds and sweet pastries, I highly recommend them (this is my husband’s favorite).
Fun facts: The croissant is associated with the French almost as much as baguettes. Surprisingly, though, it’s not the country’s most popular viennoiserie: in a recent survey, it was beaten by the pain au chocolat! Also surprising: according to historians, croissants, which were brought to Paris by Austrian baker August Zang, used to taste similar to brioches. The flaky variety we know and cherish today probably only came about in the 20th century.
Le pain au chocolat (also called a chocolatine)
Shaped like a blunt, lumpy rectangle, this viennoiserie is similar to a croissant: a somewhat crispy exterior (although often slightly softer than a croissant’s) and fluffy, light interior, filled with a piece of dark chocolate or, more commonly, (a) thick line(s) of chocolate paste. Fun fact: According to the survey cited in the croissant section, this is currently the most popular viennoiserie in France.
Le pain au lait
This soft, sweet bread is usually shaped like a small loaf, sometimes with decorative spikes on top. It’s a very popular snack for children.
Le pain viennois (sometimes called la baguette viennoise, or simply viennois)
Its taste and very soft, sweet bread-like texture are similar to le pain au lait. Le pain viennois is usually shaped like a long baguette, making it easy to share or portion off for your family at breakfast time.
There are two varieties you’ll find in most boulangeries:
- le viennois nature – plain.
- Le viennois au chocolat (sometimes called viennois aux pépites de chocolat) riddled with delicious chocolate chips.
Fun fact: Depending on the boulangerie, un pain viennois can sometimes be an excellent bargain, since they’re usually sold pretty cheap and can last a while or be shared with several people.
Le pain aux raisins
This spiral-shaped pastry is usually lightly drizzled or slightly filled with custard and covered in raisins.
Le pavé suisse (also called a suisse, drops, pavé parisien, escargot, brioche suisse, and many other names)
This pastry is less well-known than most of the others on the list, but still fairly common, at least in Parisian boulangeries. In some other countries, the dough of a pavé suisse resembles that of a brioche, but the ones I’ve seen are more like a croissant. The shape, however, is always the same. The word pavé means a slab or strip, and this viennoiserie is long and flat, stuffed with custard and chocolate chips. It’s very sweet and very filling. Even a sugar addict like me may have trouble finishing it on their own.
Versions of this pastry exist in many countries. In France, its name means “palm tree,” but it looks like a heart. Fairly large (a little bigger than the size of your palm) and flat, it’s made up of flaky layers of puff pastry covered in caramelized sugar. A sweet treat that is less filling than it looks!
The great viennoiserie debate: Pain au chocolat vs Chocolatine
A viennoiserie-related issue has been a cause of many arguments and articles, and inspired internet memes, Facebook pages, and hashtags. This is whether the name pain au chocolat or chocolatine is the “right” one. France’s current favorite viennoiserie is known as le pain au chocolat in most of the country. But in the southwest (as well as abroad, in Quebec), it’s called la chocolatine. The reasoning behind chocolatine is probably that, for many people from those regions, un pain au chocolat is literally “bread with chocolate”, a baguette with a plain chocolate bar inside. This is another popular snack in France, especially for children and that my husband and I grew up enjoying (still to this day).
In a way, the inventors of the term chocolatine are quintessentially French, looking for clarity and concision in their vocabulary choices. But since this pastry is so tied to childhood and nostalgia, the rest of the country has no interest in this goal. To them, le pain au chocolat has been called that since that magical time they first tasted it, and they don’t want to even consider an alternative name. And so, the debate rages on. In general, pain au chocolat is the “official”, recognized term, and chocolatine is a regional variation.
A tip on finding the best boulangeries in Paris
There are great boulangeries in every arrondissement in Paris. I wouldn’t get on the Metro and go across the city to search out the “best” boulangerie (which I will do for my favotire pastry). Instead I’d stay near your hotel and look to see where the the Parisians are lining up. Especially weekend mornings and around 7:00pm during the week, they’ll line up at the best neighborhood boulangeries waiting for baguettes fresh out of the oven. This also might be the only time you’ll ever see a Parisian waiting in line. One of best pleasures in Paris is buying a freshly baked baguette (or 2) so hot out of the oven, you can barely carry it home, if it makes it home—that’s why you get two. I usually make at least one stop at Mayson Kayser who has boutiques throughout Paris and Phillipe Gosselin in the 1st, 7th and 9th arr. But, I happily stand in line at any boulangerie!
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